First encounters


In conversation with FRANCES O'ROURKE


who recently won the Kerry Group Fiction award for The Cold Eye of Heaven, is a novelist and short story writer. Her bestselling 2004 novel Tatty was chosen as one of the 50 Irish Books of the Decade. The Cold Eye of Heaven (Atlantic Books UK) has just been published in paperback

‘I MET ANNE in the mid-1980s at the Phoenix Park Races with Anthony Cronin, one of the people who was part of my childhood – he was a racing buddy of my father’s. I said to my husband, ‘oh look – we back the first winner and meet Tony Cronin as well, it’s going to be a good day’. When Tony stood aside, there was this beautiful girl, so London cool, wearing a lovely corduroy jacket. I was overdressed, I think I had a hat. I just took to her immediately. We had a few drinks and kept in touch until they came back from London to live in Dublin.

“Then one weekend we went up to the Kavanagh weekend [an annual literary event] in Monaghan. There were a lot of writers there and I could see by people’s attitudes that she’d already made an impression as a writer. I felt on the outside, but she never made me feel like that. We had really good fun and that was that, we were friends.

“We don’t discuss writing. But when I started to write The Dancer I asked her to read a bit of it. She said, ‘I think the writing’s wonderful’. That was very encouraging – sometimes that’s all you need. I respect Anne’s opinion, she’s highly intelligent.

“I knew Anne as a writer before I ever wrote, although I wanted to. I had my three children very young, had that all finished and done by the time I was in my mid-20s. The Listowel Writers’ Festival has a special place in my heart. The news that I’d won the Kerry Group novel of the year came 20 years to the day in 1992 when I won the Listowel short story contest; I won it again in 1993 and that’s what got me going.

“My first books, The Dancer, The Gambler and The Gatemaker, the Dublin trilogy, were published in the 1990s. When Tatty came out in 2004, I was up in the attic and said to my husband, ‘shouldn’t I get the trilogy out of the way and make room for the unsold copies of Tatty?’ And then it kept getting reprinted and reprinted.

“The four of us – my husband Denis and I, and Anne and Tony – are pals. We go out every few months, and Anne and I have great chats on the phone. They’ll be coming to my daughter’s wedding in Italy in August, Tony’s my daughter’s godfather. Anne knows my two daughters well and they’re looking forward to her coming to the hen. They’re great fun the two of them.

“We are different: I’m the nervy city girl who tells all her business at the bus stop; she’s relaxed, a country girl and a very private person. And she never complains about anything, she’s a real soldier. She has sisters, but I’ve only brothers. It’s nice for me to know that if something happened, someone like Anne would be at the end of a phone; I hope she feels the same way about me.”


is a prize-winning writer who has published novels, poems and a biography, as well as working as a scriptwriter and journalist. She lives in Dublin with her husband, Anthony Cronin

‘CHRISTINE HAS has a much better memory than I have, I can’t remember the details of how we met at the races. I just have the impression of a bouncy, lively, lovely woman. I remember meeting her on that Kavanagh weekend. After that we got into going out to parties and literary events together.

“I guess it’s true that I was a shy country girl; I am quite reserved. But don’t be taken in by Christine; she was more wild, with strong hidden reserve, whereas I was reserved but with a capacity for wildness.

“I wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I was a reader and one day, realised that people wrote books. I’m from a rural background, Holycross, in Co Tipperary. I studied English and French at Trinity and then worked as a journalist. I wrote a biography of Constance Markievicz and a coffee-table book, a quickie, a history of Brown Thomas.

“I was thinking about my novel One Day as a Tiger for three or four years before it was done. It won the Rooney prize in 1997 and was also shortlisted for the Whitbread, now the Costa. Then another novel of mine, The Far Side of a Kiss, was longlisted for the Booker and my poetry collection was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. And a filmscript I wrote won a couple of awards. Prizes are nice but writing isn’t about that of course, it’s about the half-bliss, half-torture of being rapt in front of a page or a screen. I’ve just finished a novel which hopefully will be out in a year.

“When Christine and I discuss books, we’re always in disagreement. She’ll press a book on me saying ‘this is the best book I’ve ever read’; I’ll think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. I kind of recognise books that I know she would like and that I probably wouldn’t. We rarely read the same books. Christine, like other friends, will say ‘oh Anne, for God’s sake’; the last one where I got that reaction was Resurrection by Tolstoy, which I agree is heavy going.

“I love the way she writes, it’s very vivid; I was delighted to nominate Christine for membership of Aosdána because I was enthusiastic about her work. And it was wonderful when she won the Kerry Group Fiction award at the Listowel Writers Festival, I was so thrilled. We were at the festival because Tony was getting the inaugural John B Keane Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Christine is great fun, we talk on the phone a lot. She’s very energetic, has a kind of general curiosity about life. She wears trouble lightly, goes on regardless; she’s courageous.

“I’ve known Christine for 20 years, but it doesn’t feel like that; she’s fresh as a daisy. I have sisters, but the relationship is different to a relationship with a friend, which is more about the present than a shared past. And I have girly friends and writer friends – and Christine straddles both.”

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